Dead Letter

A personal history of Outlook magazine

30 November, 2021

FROM THE BRIDGE ABOVE, they seem like ants against that vast riverbank, the reporters and other prospectors of death prowling around lifeless forms. The wind scatters scraps of words. Here’s another, what is it? A magazine! It died with an awful sound, we saw it falling. When that scene unfolded, a halal slaughter conducted painfully and without anaesthesia, in August and September 2021, everyone was watching. The usual muted gasps of horror filled the public square, followed by an awed hush. Watching from inside the belly of the beast, as it were, there could not have been a more fitting coda to an utterly remorseless time.

When did it begin? Let us nominate an arbitrary starting point: those fiats strafing through the air. You are no longer a citizen. (It could not have been simpler.) Kashmir is no longer a state. (A state of mind, then?) You have three hours, after which you do not move. Information blackouts, agitations ending in riots, young people filling the prisons, the world itself turning into a prison, the air thinning out, literally and metaphorically, in a year or two saturated with death. Humans, things, predictability, the orderly waltz we have trained our neurons to dance—all had become corpses in the river. We choked on sheer disbelief. Intimations of apocalypse mean you fear for the future of time itself. What is a magazine in the midst of this procession of death? Get a few cylinders of oxygen here, fast!

Magazines do not die anyway. A biological death does not displace them from the palace of memories—and here, it was not even biological. It was a symbolic death, a ritual sacrifice, re-enacted with a strange periodicity. The possibility that it can live, and thrive again, always exists. This was just another episodic climax in an eternal battle of elemental forces, like some Manichaean myth being played on loop.

A deliberately misread line of verse keeps returning to mind: “Idhar ek harf ki kushtani”—Here lies a letter of the alphabet, slain.

Sunil Menon was part of the team of journalists that launched Outlook in 1995 and was its managing editor when he resigned in September 2021.